Thursday, August 27, 2009

A rambling post on the feast of Thomas Gallaudet

Last week I saw the obituary of James Marsters who was the coinventer of the TTY, a device that allows Deaf people to use the telephone. It is an invention largely unnecessary today, thanks to texting, email, etc. But up until the 1990's, it made all the difference in the world for Deaf people.

I bristled somewhat at the Times headline. "Deaf Inventor," though accurate, for some reason struck a wrong chord. My interpreting alma mater, NTID (National Technical Institute for the Deaf) does it better, using the headline "Dr. James C. Marsters, Deaf Pioneer, Dentist and Inventor, Dies." Why Deaf Pioneer is better than Deaf Inventor, I am not sure. Perhaps because there is a qualifier on "inventor" that is irrelevant to what he did.

Except he probably would not have done it had he not been Deaf. And how ironic that the telephone was the obstacle that it turned out to be for so many Deaf people, given that its inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, was a teacher of the Deaf, trying to invent something to help the Deaf communicate. He was a huge proponent of oral only education, meaning Deaf people needed to learn to speak and read lips rather than sign. With the invention and patent of the telephone, AG Bell had all the money in the world to pour into an association that promotes oral education.

That's as opposed to the Gallaudet family experience, which involved not much money at all. Today is the feast of Thomas Gallaudet, the son of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet who is the Gallaudet who brought Deaf education through sign language to the U.S. The son, whose feast we celebrate, started a congregation that used sign language for its worship. (His brother, Edward Miner Gallaudet, established what is now Gallaudet University. Thomas and Edward's mother, Sophia, was Deaf and they grew up with sign language as a native language. Now, bear in mind this is more than a century before anyone believed that sign language was a language at all. That didn't happen, believe it or not, until the 1960's.

The point being, there was a tremendous amount of pressure to force Deaf people to be as normal as possible, in order to integrate into society. And that meant speaking and reading lips. Sign language for some wasn't just a way of communicating; it was a weakness or even sinful. There are lots of stories of children in Schools for the Deaf that emphasized oral education having their hands tied, being whipped if they used sign language, sneaking sign language in the schoolyard.

The point also being that, despite all the money in the world to the contrary, all the punishments, all the exclusion, all the detriments related to using it, Deaf people are still using sign language to communicate.

Thanks to Thomas Gallaudet, the Episcopal Church was able to overcome some of the prejudice related to Deafness. Instead of suggesting some well-meaning hearing person to minister to the Deaf, instead he promoted Henry Winter Syle who was Deaf himself and whom we also mark today.

The point also being that sometimes what we think of as abnormal, what we think of as disability, what we think of as something that needs to be healed is no such thing. And all our efforts to require "normality" of ourselves or of others may ultimately be in vain.

God bless Thomas Gallaudet for accepting his Deaf friends and family exactly as they were. May we be given the eyes to see and ears to hear the truth about ourselves and others.

1 comment:

it's margaret said...

Yep. My grandmother was deaf and she learned to read lips. She graduated from UC Berkeley as a nurse in 1915 and no one knew she was deaf. Story was that she even received a proposal of marriage and she told the guy she was deaf and he took his proposal back.... She went on and enlisted in the army as a nurse in WWI --they never checked her hearing either.... And she spoke beautifully.... my memories of her include a box about 3 inches square that she wore in her bra that amplifed sound to her bones and she "heard" that way. But most people never knew she was deaf.